Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.11.16

A. J. Boyle (ed.), Seneca: Oedipus.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. cxxv, 437.  ISBN 9780199547715.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Christopher Trinacty, University of Missouri-Columbia (

A.J. Boyle’s commentary to Seneca’s Oedipus is the first English commentary to this devastating play, and offers an erudite blend of poetic, historical, and philological observations. Boyle provides an ample introduction, his own text and translation of the play, as well as the commentary itself, select bibliography and indexes. Senecan scholars may wonder how this commentary compares with Töchterle’s magisterial 1994 tome.1 As the shadow of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus looms large over Seneca’s tragedy, so the shadow of Töchterle’s work may seem inescapable. Boyle, however, like Seneca himself, recognizes his debts to his predecessors but presents his own focused view of Oedipus, and draws upon his own interests in issues such as performance, reception, and Stoicism in crafting this fine commentary.

Boyle’s introduction covers the background material in extensive detail with sections ranging from the obligatory “Seneca and Rome” to excurses on “The Declamatory Style” and “The Reception of Seneca’s Oedipus”. His vivid piece on “The Roman Theatre” acts as a synopsis of his recent work, Roman Tragedy,2 but foregrounds topics such as the architectural complexity of Pompey’s Theatre as well as the performance debate (Boyle believes Seneca wrote for the stage). Boyle gives us a view of early imperial Rome in which the themes of Seneca’s tragedies resonate, “vengeance, madness, power-lust, passion, irrational hatred, self-contempt, murder, incest, hideous death, fortune’s vicissitudes and savagery, a theatricalized and dying world – were the stuff of life” (xxv). In his introduction to the play itself, Boyle highlights the guilt, anger, and fear in the nightmare world of plague-stricken Thebes. He teases out illuminating moments that pertain to staging, Stoicism, Seneca’s aemulatio of Sophocles, and metatheatre. So, when speaking of the entrance of Jocasta in the first act, Boyle hypothesizes, “Oedipus is probably still prostrate on all fours, like the child in the answer to the Sphinx’s riddle before the woman whose child he is. He now rises (during or after her speech) like the adult of that riddle and will depart the play on ‘three legs’ (i.e. with a blind man’s stick) at its close” (lix). His work on the reception of Seneca ranges from antiquity to the modern day in many different genres from opera to sculpture, and one finds here some of the usual suspects (Octavia, Ecerinis, Voltaire’s Oedipe), but other less obvious works as well (Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Albert’s Into Eclipse song cycle). Reception is clearly an important concern of Boyle’s (and often pops up in the commentary itself), and this section offers brief forays into Seneca’s influence on Corneille, Dryden and Lee, Voltaire, as well as Hughes’ adaptation of Seneca’s Oedipus.3 The introduction concludes with a useful guide to the metres of Seneca’s Oedipus and Boyle’s preface to his translation.

The text and translation are presented on facing pages with the critical apparatus positioned as an appendix directly afterwards.4 The text differs from Zwierlein’s OCT in thirty-six places and Boyle is careful to note in his commentary his rationale for emendation and conjecture, often cross-referencing the works of Fitch,5 Giardina, 6 Häuptli,7 and Töchterle. His translation exemplifies his desire to produce “a dramatic line which reproduces something of the tautness of Seneca’s verse” (cxxiv), and displays the vividness and verve of Seneca’s poetry.

And Seneca did write poetry, a fact that Boyle stresses, helpfully, time and again in the commentary. Instances of assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, word play, anaphora, and interlocking word order are noted, often with a hint as to why Seneca is engaging in such techniques. The commentary provides a judicious blend of literary, cultural, and philological information and is strongest when pointing out (1) intra/intertextual references, (2) theatrical and metatheatrical information, (3) philosophical resonances, and (4) historical connections.

(1) While loci similes are the bread and butter of any good commentary, Boyle expertly concentrates on those he finds most fruitful for comparison and interpretation. In analyzing the plague that opens the play (a “textually transmitted disease”8 if there ever was one), Boyle does a fine job pointing out Seneca’s debts to Thucydides, Lucretius, Virgil, and Ovid, but also adds his own wrinkle by stressing the inversion of the traditional locus amoenus (ad37-70) and pointing out how the plague imagery markedly appears later in the play. Through linguistic and metrical similarities, Boyle connects the first choral ode with Catullus 11, finding “the point of Seneca’s allusion is perhaps not opaque. He wants some members of his audience to see beneath the Chorus’s opening Sapphics the paradigm of personal devastation wrought by sex” (ad 110-23). By providing an interpretation of significant intertextual echoes, Boyle encourages the reader to question the rationale behind Seneca’s allusive language and to investigate the implication of such poetic links. The repetition of words within the play binds together characters and themes, and Boyle is perspicacious in finding how such intratextual connections knot together e.g. the Sphinx, Oedipus, Mars’ serpent and the Spartoi (ad 724-5) as well as the way that an adjective such as avidus “is a thematic epithet of this play, linking the plague (4, 589), death (164), and Oedipus’ blinding (965) as markers of ‘fate’s lust’ (411)” (ad 410-11).

(2) Senecan tragedy adheres to theatrical conventions and Boyle articulates how scenes could be staged effectively, including the notoriously difficult-to-stage extispicium scene. Here, Boyle follows the suggestions of Ahl9 (essentially the use of symbolic props for the animals), while giving the pros and cons of other possible performance options (ad 291-402). Boyle accentuates ways in which Seneca’s plays are part of a long theatrical tradition in Rome, and often points to Republican tragic parallels of themes (e.g. “the power and mutability of fortune” ad 8-11), poetic devices (asyndeton ad 13), and motifs (the pursuit of ships by dolphins ad 465-6). As a correlate to such theatricality, the metatheatricality of the Oedipus is likewise highlighted to point out the critical implications of the Bacchus Ode (ad 413, 418-21, 423) as well as the final mask the bloodied Oedipus assumes (ad 999-1003). Metatheatre has long been an interest of Boyle’s, 10 and he is on sure ground when discussing such moments in the text, whether they shade into issues of focalization (ad 4, 995-7) or even metapoetics (ad 101-2).

(3) Seneca’s Stoic philosophy is an important component of the dramatic and critical texture of the play, but Boyle finds the play, “decidedly un-Stoic, even a negation of Stoicism, cardinal principles of which are critically exhibited within a different, more disturbing vision” (xix). The commentary notes moments in which Stoic thought influences the language and consequences of the dramatic action. Thus, Boyle provides the Stoic background to Seneca’s use of natura (ad 24-5), fatum (ad 18-19) and its multi-faceted importance in the play, as well as the Stoic belief that strong emotion manifests on the face (ad 509-513), citing Ira1.1.7.11 Oedipus’ address to his soul (anime, 933) presents Boyle the opportunity to meld his theatrical and Stoic interests as he calls attention to its ability to index soliloquies and asides, and as a formula to suggest the Stoic theory of voluntary action. Stoicism lurks behind much of Seneca’s thought, and Boyle is a steady guide to the moments in which it needs to be taken into consideration for one’s understanding of the Oedipus.

(4) When turning to historical considerations, the question can be vexed because of the indeterminate dating of Seneca’s tragic works. Boyle believes Oedipus is an early play, probably Claudian in date, while also pointing out how the themes and concerns of the play are evocative of the Neronian principate. Because of this, Boyle believes Tacitus and the Octavia poet alluded to Seneca’s Jocasta as “a suitable model for their account of Nero’s mother, one which sustained the rumours of incest between Agrippina and her son and underscored the moral perversion at the heart of the late Julio-Claudian court” (lxxxii). When not mapping a direct relationship between the characters of the play and their contemporary analogues, Boyle also has a strong sense of the atmosphere of this era so Merope’s desire for Oedipus’ return hints at “the dramatist’s knowledge of the princesses and empresses of the imperial court” (ad 794-7). Legal language (ad 34, ad 371-2), religious customs (ad 291-402), and views on suicide (ad 1032-9) are given ample notes that indicate ways in which the events on stage would speak to a contemporaneous Roman audience.

In conclusion, Boyle’s commentary offers a fresh view of this play that reveals Seneca’s own fresh interpretation of the Oedipus myth. When he needs to prove a point, Boyle is concise and clear in his argumentation and, when commenting on passages, he is fluid in moving between grammatical/syntactical details and meatier subjects. The notes offer a rich supply of pertinent information and will be of great use to scholars working on the play.12


1.   Töchterle, K. (1994) Lucius Annaeus Seneca: Oedipus. Kommentar mit Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung. Heidelberg. The commentary proper of Töchterle’s work spans over 500 pages, while Boyle’s section is 266 pages.
2.   Boyle, A.J. (2006) Roman Tragedy. London.
3.   As much as I enjoyed this section, I was befuddled at his inclusion of a rather superfluous list of over 75 works inspired by the Oedipus myth from the twentieth century alone (cx-cxi).
4.   While Boyle has done this in each of his critical editions of Seneca, I personally find it unwieldy and would prefer to see the apparatus below the Latin text.
5.   Fitch, J.G. (2004) Annaeana Tragica: Notes on the Text of Seneca’s Tragedies. Leiden.
6.   Giardina, G.C.L. (1966) L. Annaei Senecae Tragoediae. Bologna. As well as his recent editions (2007/2009) Lucio Anneo Seneca: Tragedie. I/II. Pisa and Rome.
7.   Häuptli, B. (1983) Senecas Oedipus. Frauenfeld.
8.   Slaney, H. (2009) “Liminal’s Kosky’s Hughes’s Artaud’s Seneca’s Oedipus.” New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 4. 52-69.
9.   Ahl, F. (2008) Two Faces of Oedipus: Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Seneca’s Oedipus. Ithaca and London.
10.   Cf. his chapter “The Theatricalised Wor(l)d” in Boyle, A.J. (1997) Tragic Seneca. London.
11.   Here Boyle may have cited Evans, E.C. (1950) “A Stoic Aspect of Senecan Drama: Portraiture.” TAPA 81: 169-84.
12.   A couple misprints include “conforting” for “comforting” (p. 118) and “iambic trimeters: 202-2,” which should read “202-22” (p. 162).

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